The town of Tursi
The town of Tursi

Basilicata: a gourmet escape to southern Italy

Fine wines and the freshest ingredients make this region a must-visit for gourmands

Anthony Rose
Tuesday 13 September 2016 16:30

Martine Greslon is the lone English soul living in the hilltop village of Tursi. It had been two decades since I last saw her at one of the London wine tastings she regularly attended for Thetford wine merchant T & W Wines, but after emailing me for some information on wine, she mentioned she was planning to open a cookery school in Basilicata. Soon after, our cars were rubbing noses in Tursi’s car park.

Following her much-scratched Renault up a narrow, winding street, I arrived, somewhat frazzled, at her newly renovated one-roomed apartment. Briefly taking in welcoming Vatican candles, chaise longue, floaty net curtains and a glass of Prosecco, I succumbed to cool Egyptian cotton sheets. Next morning, I awoke to birdsong, a view across the valley of a medieval monastery and a fridgeful of home-made pasta, apricot jam, salt biscuits, salsiccia and limoncello.

“It sounds like a cliché but I fell in love, with the food, the landscape, the bright blue sky and amazing sunshine,” said Martine. After hearing of the beauty of Basilicata’s food and wine, she googled it, up popped Tursi, and that was it. Plans for a cookery school had to be put on hold though when her backer pulled out. Now, she has one self-catering apartment and is renovating two more, with the optional add-on of bespoke cookery lessons based on healthy, fresh, seasonal food.

Orechiette pasta, made by Anthony

While the old village tumbles down to a featureless town below, Tursi is capped by the 9th-century village of Rabatana, best known today for the haunting, romantic poetry of Albino Pierro. Empty houses and a ruined medieval castle testify to the fact that it’s all but abandoned except for 20 inhabitants and an unlikely grand hotel, the Palazzo dei Poeti, a potential location for the clientèle Martine aims to lure to Tursi when the cookery school is fully up and running.

Were there to be an Il Postino re-make co-directed by David Lynch and Federico Fellini, you couldn’t find a better location for it. Dowdily clad women laze on wicker chairs outside dilapidated stone houses or peer from behind shutters. Wizened men with walking sticks lounge on benches and mutter in an alien local dialect or wander aimlessly up and down narrow, winding streets whose ancient, claustrophobic walls bear silent witness to centuries of comings and goings.

Thanks to a rich cultural history and an unspoilt lunar landscape of deep canyons, arid dunes and ghost villages, Basilicata today is one of the best destinations for travellers in search of adventure. The biblical feel of its former capital, Matera, has made it a location for films such as Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ. With its two dramatic districts of troglodyte cave dwellings, the Sasso Caveoso and Sasso Barisano, Matera is a Unesco World Heritage Site and, in 2019, will be European Capital of Culture.

The Sassi are now Unesco-protected

Over time, the population excavated the soft local sedimentary limestone to build, at first troglodyte hovels, and subsequently, houses constructed on an increasingly grand scale with their own garden terraces. As the high plateau area around the cathedral square became richer, the Sassi grew poorer. Today, the slums have been ingeniously transformed into smart middle-class houses, hotels, restaurants and shops.

“When you see Basilicata, you see fields, vineyards, beautiful landscapes, you see the land as it should be,” said the film director, Francis Ford Coppola. This invocation to the scenic, mountainous landscape of Basilicata is no truer than of the rolling hills of the Vulture wine region. Thanks to ancient volcanic lava flows and an altitude of some 500–600 metres, the breezes that drift through the vineyard slopes on the ancient volcano of Vulture keep the local aglianico vines healthy and free from rot.

Vines line the slopes of Vulture 

Derived from the Greek word Hellenica, aglianico ripens late in the sponge-like volcanic rock to produce strong, deep-coloured, robust reds. “Much aglianico used to be transported to Piedmont to bring colour, richness and body to the nebbiolo-based wines of Barolo,” I was told by Vito Paternoster, who produces delicious wines in the town of Barile. Hence, says Paternoster, the saying: “There’s no Barolo without Barile”.

One of the younger breed of winemakers, Elena Fucci, started making wine here in 2000 after studying winemaking in Pisa and inheriting some of Vulture’s oldest vineyards from her grandfather. She incorporates aglianico into her sumptuous red, Il Titolo. In neigbouring Notaio, the Cantina del Notaio boasts an impressive range, including the stylish Il Repertorio, Il Sigillo and La Firma, held in wooden casks in its six subterranean cellars hand-excavated by Franciscan monks in the 15th century.

Cantina del Notaio’s cellar

Heading back to the Ionian sea, the resort town of Bernalda contains a surprise: Palazzo Margherita, an elegant palatial villa built in 1892 that stands discreetly behind one of the many street cafés. Exit left at the back of a bar decorated with photos of Hollywood stars, and you find yourself in Francis Ford Coppola’s stunning boutique hotel, complete with 19th-century garden and 21st-century pool. At a pasta-making session before a candlelit dinner on the terrace outside, Paola taught me how to craft three types of local pasta, cavatelli, orecchiette and faricelli. The young, German-trained chef, Tommaso Lacantura, then combined my handiwork with olive oil, chopped onions, cherry tomatoes and basil.

The bar at Palazzo Margherita

Still in search of golden sands and azure seas, I was directed by the Palazzo’s manager, Rossella de Filippo, to the nearby La Spiaggetta beach. A heavenly choir of cicadas accompanied me through Mediterranean pine to a beach that wouldn’t have been out of place in Bali. The bonus was divine seafood cooked by the family running the beach – well worth the detour even without a refreshing dip in the Ionian Sea.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The closest airports are Bari, served by BA, Ryanair and easyJet, and Brindisi, served by Ryanair.

Staying there

The Orangery Luxury Retreat, Tursi (00 39 3425758723; Doubles from £93, B&B.

Locanda Di San Martino, Matera (00 39 0835 256600; Doubles from £76 room only.

Masseria Cardillo, Bernalda (00 39 0835 748992; Doubles from £151, room only.

Hotel Il Castagneto, Melfi (00 39 0972 728806; Doubles from £76, room only.

Palazzo Margherita, Bernalda (00 39 0835 549060; Doubles from £838.27, room only.

More information

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments